How to Cruise the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal is one of the great travel experiences. But if you don’t have a yacht, how do you do it? You could get a job on a freighter or join the Navy, but there’s a much simpler solution: cruise the Panama Canal.

Over 200 cruise ships pass through the Panama Canal every year. Each will offer a different itinerary and have its own unique viewing opportunities. I’ve transited twice, on the Celebrity Infinity and Norwegian Jewel, and enjoyed both journeys immensely. There’s a lot to consider before you cruise the Panama Canal, and with a little homework, you too can have the trip of lifetime!

Cruise the Panama Canal view of Culebra Cut
Panama Canal’s Culebra Cut

Why Cruise the Panama Canal


This wondrous 51-mile waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was completed by the United States in 1914 after a failed French attempt that resulted in the deaths of 22,000 laborers. Reading David McCullough’s fascinating book, The Path Between the Seas, should be your first step in preparing for a transit.


The design of the Panama Canal is as close to engineering perfection as you can get. Ships are raised up 85 feet via locks from sea level at either coast to Gatun Lake, then lowered back down when they reach the other side of the continental divide. Not one pump is used in the whole process—all water movement is the result of gravity.

Cruise the Panama Canal Ship in Lock
An electric locomotive or “mule” guides a ship through a lock on the Panama Canal

Panamanian Jungle

Only a portion of your Panama Canal cruise will be spent in locks. Much of the time, you’ll be navigating Gatun Lake, looking out over a vast tropic jungle. The islands you’ll see are actually hilltops, flooded when the Chagres River was dammed to form the lake. Watch for birds and other wildlife.

People of Panama

Cruise the Panama Canal Embera natives play music
Embera Musicians

Panama is home to a number of indigenous tribes. Many cruises will have port calls in Panama City on the Pacific coast or Colon on the Caribbean side, allowing you an opportunity to visit a native village. I traveled by dugout canoe to the Tusipono Embera community on the Chagres River, where I was greeted by musicians and dancers. After a chat with the chief, the tribe served up delicious tilapia wrapped in banana leaves.

Cruise the Panama Canal thatch hut Embera village
Embera Village

When to Cruise the Panama Canal

Dry season in Panama is mid-December to mid-April, so that’s the best time to go. No matter the month, it will be hot. It takes 8 to 10 hours to transit the canal and you’ll be on deck frequently. Be sure to prioritize sun protection. If you want to see the rainforest at its most colorful, try to cruise at the very end of the dry season in late March or April when the purple jacaranda and yellow guayacan trees are in bloom.

Cruise the Panama Canal yellow guayacan trees
Guayacan and jacaranda trees at Gatun Lake

Choosing a Ship

When choosing a ship, don’t go too big. Massive megaships will be shunted off to the new, wider lock system that was built in 2016. You won’t get to squeeze through the original 1914 canal gates, guided by the iconic “mule” locomotives.

Mule Roundabout

Canal Viewing Areas

Study each potential ship’s deck plan thoroughly before deciding. You’ll want a full promenade deck and plenty of public observation areas (inside and out), so you can roam around and view the canal from different perspectives.

When I transited on the Norwegian Jewel they opened the bow of the ship (a crew-only zone) to passengers for an up-close look at the opening lock gates. If your ship does the same, don’t rush out in the morning for the first gate. This is when the bow will be most crowded. By the time you reach the later locks (you’ll pass through 6 chambers in total) passenger interest will have waned and there will be plenty of space.

Entering the Gatun Locks, view from bow of Norwegian Jewel

Shipboard Activities

Lectures on the Celebrity Infinity were far more interesting than anything Norwegian offered. Both ships had excellent narrators who provided a running commentary on transit day over the ship’s speakers. Celebrity, however, went above and beyond by providing each passenger with a certificate bearing his or her name, the Captain’s signature, and the date of transit. It’s one of my most cherished souvenirs, as I happened to be transiting on my birthday. I now have a framed document certifying I went through the Panama Canal on the same date that I had, thirty-seven years earlier, passed through the birth canal.

Celebrity Infinity anchored off Coquimbo, Chile


The ship’s itinerary is also important. Full-transit cruises are about two weeks long, with ports of call in the Caribbean islands and continental Americas. Florida to California (and vice versa) is a popular route, but you can also head down, across the equator, to South America.

If you’ve never crossed the equator you’ll have a chance to join in a classic maritime ritual—the Line Crossing Ceremony. King Neptune will put you on trial, and after a good dose of silly abuse, proclaim you a Shellback. On the Celebrity Infinity, lowly Pollywogs (those who hadn’t crossed before) were glopped with Jell-O, green pudding and spaghetti before being forced to “kiss the fish”—an expired, foul-smelling tuna.

King Neptune presides over the trial of the Pollywogs

I should mention that there are shorter, roundtrip, Panama Canal cruises. These ships usually leave from Florida, go through the first set of locks into Gatun Lake, turn around, and return to Florida. This might be okay if you’re pressed for time, but I would discourage such dabbling. The Panama Canal revolutionized oceanic travel and it should be transited fully, as part of a proper voyage, from somewhere to somewhere else.

Which Direction to Cruise the Panama Canal

When it comes to direction, east to west is best. As you move west across time zones you’ll gain hours and get extra sleep in the mornings. Heading east, you’re getting up earlier and earlier. There’s also the grand finale to consider: cruising under the Bridge of the Americas and popping out into the Pacific with jaw-dropping views of the Panama City skyline. Completing your transit at Colon, on the Caribbean coast, just doesn’t compare.

Panama City and Biomuseo from Norwegian Jewel

Where to Stay After You Cruise the Panama Canal

I transited the canal once on my way home to the U.S. after an extended stay in Central America, and once en route to South America. If you’re heading north, you’ll probably disembark at San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco. I prefer San Diego because it’s home to Balboa Park, the location of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. This hugely popular fair was the first to celebrate the opening of the canal, beating San Francisco by two months. The grand buildings constructed for the exposition remain and are now museums. A stay at the all-suite Inn at the Park will put you within walking distance of them all.

Balboa Park, San Diego

If you’re going south, your final port will likely be Valparaiso, Chile, a beautiful city that’s well worth a short sojourn before traveling inland to the varied splendors of South America. I recommend accommodations on Bellavista Hill, which is more pleasant than the port area. The Verso Hotel and Hostal Ansaldi are very close to the late Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s home, La Sebastiana. For scenic vistas, staying near a famous poet’s house is always a good bet!

View from Bellavista Hill. Valparaiso, Chile

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